I have a treat for you today! If you’ve listened to Treasure or The Festivus Miracle, you’ve heard Joel’s wonderful range of voices. And now he’s been kind enough to answer some questions. Please join me in welcoming Joel!
Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Welllll… I record all of my m/m stuff under my middle name (Joel Leslie). My given last name is Joel Froomkin. The only reason I use two names is so that my m/m audience can always be sure what material they are getting when they see that name. I grew up in Bermuda (yup, the triangle)… which is a British colony. That kind explains why I’m a little bit of a dialect freak. Bermuda is a British colony and I went to a British school where all my teachers were from all over the UK. So I grew up absorbing all these different sounds without even being conscious of it. My best friend was Scottish, my ‘adopted’ grandparents were English… so I was really lucky. I did my undergrad in performance at USC, and then my MFA in directing – which is actually ideal for audiobooks because you are usually your own director. Being able to listen with an objective ear and say to yourself ‘nope…that doesn’t sound truthful’ is a real help. I’ve lived in London, NYC and now I’m based in Indiana – but my partner and I are hoping to move to Orlando in the next few months.
How did you start doing book narration?
Well, we moved to Indiana to start a theatre company. While we were building the main auditorium we would do smaller shows. Because I loved dialects and character voices, I would once in a while do one-man versions of stories like A Christmas Carol, Treasure Island and other classics. I found I really loved them and the audiences really responded well. I have a female friend who is a very successful narrator and she encouraged me to start putting myself out there and auditioning. I’ve been at it a little over a year, and It’s really been wonderful. I would guess I’ve sold about 14,000 audiobooks at this point… and it’s amazing to get to tell people stories.
I’d love to learn a little more about your process for narrating. Do you begin by reading the entire book to yourself before you start narrating? How long does an average novel take you?
You do have to read the book first… otherwise you can really get yourself in trouble. When I first started narrating I did a book and reached chapter 10 when I suddenly read a sentence that made it clear a character was African American and I had go back and redo it all. Sometimes an author doesn’t give you all the info up front…. Or on page 243 they will suddenly say “He said in his deep voice” or “with a light Norwegian lilt” – so you kind of have do that detective work ahead. Also – if you don’t know the arc of a character it can be hard to give them a journey through the whole novel.
In terms of the amount of time it takes I usually record about six hours a day… and if it’s an average length book of about 8 hours it will take me about four full days.
How do you choose what kind of voice a particular character will have?
I work closely with my authors before I start… I send them a whole questionnaire about all the characters. I ask them who, if it was a movie, they would dream cast in each role. I ask them to imagine what kind of animal each character would be (I guess their patronus LOL). If an author thinks a character is a lizard vs a persian kitten it can really help you know what was in their mind vocally.
People also are really surprised to learn that I need the most info from authors about the minor characters. Authors always tell you a lot about the main characters… but if a character has a couple lines, they usually give you very little. So I always ask them, in their head, how old are these people? Where are they from? What is their class level? For fantasy and British books that can be really imperative… especially if you have people from different clans and species.
In my mind I have a sort of repertory cast of actors now that I can draw on for minor characters etc. Treasure was really fun to voice the supporting cast… I knew it was supposed to be a rural and coastal area so rather than go Cockney, which is a city dialect, I went for Cornwall. It’s a fun, earthy sound.
You’ve done a wide variety of accents and dialects, and I know that’s one of your areas of expertise. Do you use particular models for these? Are there some you especially enjoy doing—and are there some you dread?
Most of the time I love the challenge. Narrating entire books in Scottish is exhausting… not because it’s hard to maintain the dialect, but because it’s really muscular and everything turns into a tongue twister. I recently did an Australian book for an Australian author – and that was terrifying. We worked so hard to get it right. She wanted a real outback sound… not Hugh Jackman or Chris Helmsworth. It’s the sound Americans only hear from Crocodile Dundee or Steve Irwin. And then some Americans (her main readership) thought the accent was cartoony – which was heartbreaking because that’s just the way that particular dialect sounds. So sometimes you can’t win lol. As a dialect guy you have to learn that sometimes “it’s not what is right… it’s what your audience thinks is right”. Most of the British dialects are really comfy for me now – I recently had to do Birmingham and that was madness lol. I actually am working on learning American regionalisms to the degree I know British ones.
What are some of the biggest challenges to doing narration work?
It’s a lot of alone time… you don’t interact with anyone – just yourself alone in a closet for hours on end. Getting sick is awful – cuz you just can’t power through it like you would another job… If your voice goes you just have to wait till it comes back. I actually was having real issues with vocal exhaustion… for a few months my recodings were sounding raspier. Normally I have no trouble doing female voices, and that part of my range was suffering. After a bunch of visits with an ENT it turns out it was an acid reflux issue and I’ve had to go on this crazy diet for a couple months… no cafeeine, no alchohol, no citrus, no tomatoes, no onions, no garlic, no chocolate. It’s been rough… but the difference has been really significant.
Recording audiobooks is kind of a marathon. You have to be able to talk for hours and hours a day and maintain quality and consistency. If you think about how much an actor says in an entire movie… like Meryll Streep in one of her starring roles probably talks for maybe a total of 30 minutes max in a movie if you add up all her lines. We have to maintain not just one character believably, but all of them, and over an eight-ten hour time span. I once had a reviewer say that she didn’t like a book because one of the voices I gave a secretary character in a book that had like TWO lines. So if you hit one chord wrong you can really lose your reader. The m/m reading community is amazing though – they follow and support narrators like no other genre in audiobooks. I’m really grateful to have been embraced by them the way I have.
When you’re not narrating, you a theatre artistic director and you’ve directed many plays. Can you us a little about that? (Also, you’ve worked with Anthony Stewart Head and Alan Tudyk, which gives my fangirl self a little thrill!)
Ha! Yah – my MFA was in directing and I worked in London for three years and NY for a long time. I directed the Tempest with Tony Head (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as Prospero. He was such a warm, lovely man. So down to earth and hilarious. I also directed Charlie Shaughnessy from The Nanny who was a dream. I also love teaching… Mellisa Fumero who stars on Brooklyn 999 is one of my former students. I was lucky enough to be the assistant director on a show with Maggie Smith which was a life-changing experience. Plus I do a really great Maggie Smith impression which has booked me a surprising number of jobs lol. I worked with Alan Tudyk and Molly Ringwald on the development of an off-broadway show.
What do you like to read for fun? Do you listen to audiobooks for fun too?
I love doing audiobooks because I was addicted to them before I started it as a job. I think Patrick Stewart’s version of A Christmas Carol was what got me started… it’s brilliantly theatrical which is what I strive to do… not just read, but to really try and bring the characters to life. I listen to audiobooks almost every night as I’m going to sleep and whenever I’m in the car. Simon Vance, Jim Dale, Roy Dotrice and Davina Porter are my big audiobook idols. I also feel really honored to be able to tell GLBT stories. It means a lot to be able to put those stories of love and HEA out in the universe. A book like Treasure moved me so much because I was recording it for the 16 year old version of me that I wished could hear this book. Every time I record I think about the people that the stories can help them believe they can find acceptance and happiness and love.
Do you have a dream project?
You know as a theatre person – it’s really lovely to create something that is lasting. When you do theatre it’s gone as soon as the show closes… but this work just kind of keeps growing and finding an audience. The worst part is that you get so much better as your career progresses that you wish you could go back and do books over again. The first book I ever did was the first in the Skyler Foxe series… and I’m proud of it, but my work has gotten so much stronger that I always wanna tell people “wait until book 3 – I know what I’m doing by then!!!”.
A dream project? I think JK Rowling is a dream for narrators – and you get to play with so many voices… so that would probably be the ultimate. I think my best work is when the material has a sense of whimsy and fantasy to it… it suits my style.
What do you have in the works next?
I’m recording a Highland Romance right now. Then I’m working on the sequel to BlackBalled by Andrea Smith and Eva Lenoir. The Skyler Foxe series keeps growing… so there’s always one of those to tackle. I think I have about 20 books scheduled at the moment. It’s really nice to be busy!
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
Just that the m/m listeners are the best. And that Treasure is honestly one my favorite books that I’ve ever done. I was a really sickly kid… that may be why. But it really touched me deeply – it’s like a warm cup of cocoa or a great hug… books like that make the world a happier place to exist and it’s really an honor to get to put the love out in the world. Sometimes I think about the fact that total strangers listen to me and I make them laugh or smile… and that’s an incredible gift.
Thanks so much, Joel!